Worst-Case Scenarios: How Democracy Ends
Part 2 in a series where I explore the flaws in principle and practice that now dominate my own side.
You can read part 1 here.
One reason I wanted to start a Substack is to write more impressionistic (not fully-formed) posts about things I’m still working out and to invite comment and criticism from good-faith interlocutors. In other words, I’m trying to deliberately limit my audience. Here goes.
At the heart of the divide over whether American democracy will die today, tomorrow, or in two years is a divide over what is real and observable. It’s not so much that we disagree on opinions—that’s only natural. It’s that we can’t agree on the facts upon which to form opinions.
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I confess that it’s hard for me to take the argument that America will cease to be a democracy tomorrow seriously. That seems like a flight of rhetorical fancy. However, as far as I can tell, a large number of prominent commentators and journalists do seem to believe that democracy will die in 2024. But I’ve never been able to fully understand the theory of the case.
Also, it’s worth noting that an argument about the future is not an argument about facts; it’s an argument about something that, in a very literal sense, hasn’t actually happened yet. As it turns out, it’s challenging to have a reasoned conversation about something that may or may not happen at some unspecified future point in history. So the claim that democracy “will” die, or even just begin dying, if the GOP wins today or in 2024 is a speculative claim. And because it’s a speculative claim, presumably reasonable people can disagree on whether it is likely to be an accurate forecasting of a future event. If you take my premise that reasonable people can disagree on the future, then to base one’s verdict on the very survival of American democracy on such a premise is a rather big leap.
So let’s play out the scenario. How exactly does the United States become an authoritarian regime in which one party “systematically erects barriers to popular accountability such that it can no longer be removed from power, no matter what the voters want,” to use Jamelle Bouie’s characterization? This is never explained in any actual detail, in part because an unlikely confluence of several unlikely events would need to happen in a particular order and within a fairly narrow timeframe in such a way as to stretch credulity. I’m all for political imagination, but there must be limits.